Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution provides for workers’ freedom of association; however, there is no specific law protecting the right to freedom of association, which is required to allow unions to register and operate without interference and discrimination. As a result, the court system refused to recognize trade unions officially. Worker organizations are usually treated as civil society organizations or associations without the right to engage in collective bargaining. Police and armed forces do not have the right to form unions. The Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act effectively prohibits strikes by workers in the resort sector, the country’s largest money earner. Employees in the following services are also prohibited from striking: hospitals and health centers, electricity companies, water providers, telecommunications providers, prison guards, and air traffic controllers. The Home Ministry enforces the act by arresting workers who go on strike, but there were no such arrests during the year. In June resort workers from JA Manafaru went on a hunger strike to protest the resort management’s decision to dismiss several employees. The conflict was resolved, without any dismissals, after Tourism Minister Ali Waheed went to the resort and held discussions with the management and representatives of the resort workers’ association, Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM). TEAM noted this incident indicated the government is capable and willing to hold tripartite discussions even if it is not mandated under current domestic legislation.
The government did not always enforce applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The Labor Relations Authority (LRA) is mandated to oversee compliance of the Employment Act and its related regulations. The Employment Tribunal examines and adjudicates legal matters arising between employers and employees and other employment problems, but its processes are cumbersome and complicated. In addition, because the LRA does not regularly screen labor violations such as nonpayment of wages for elements of trafficking, the Employment Tribunal adjudicates some potential trafficking cases. Violators who refused to correct violations or pay fines were referred to the courts, whose decisions often were ignored. The cases are heard in the Dhivehi language, which few foreign workers understood. Foreign workers may not file a case with the tribunal unless they appoint a representative to communicate for them in the local language. If an employer fails to comply with a decision of the tribunal, the case must be submitted to the Civil Court, which often delays decisions. TEAM reported the judicial system continued to delay final decisions on numerous such cases, some older than six years of age. The Employment Tribunal only hears cases submitted within three months for cases involving unfair dismissals and within six months of the alleged offense for all other violations of the Employment Act. A September 2018 amendment to the Employment Tribunal regulation that states dismissed or withdrawn appeals can only be resubmitted once, after paying a MVR 500 ($32) fine, was still in place. Previously, there was no restriction on the number of times such cases could be resubmitted.
Under the law, some workers’ organizations were established as civil society organizations, specifically in the tourism, education, health, and shipping (seafarers’) sectors, although these functioned more as cooperative associations and had very limited roles in labor advocacy. The Teachers Association of the Maldives (TAM) and TEAM were among the more active workers’ organizations, along with the Maldivian Ports Workers. In September the workers’ associations, including TEAM, TAM, Maldivian Ports Worker, and newly established Maldives Health Professionals Unions jointly registered an umbrella organization called the Maldives Trade Union Congress, which aims to work in solidarity for the rights of workers in all major industries.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
All forms of forced or compulsory labor are prohibited, but the government did not effectively enforce applicable laws.
Resources, inspections, and remediation were generally inadequate, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The foreign worker population, especially migrant workers from Bangladesh, were particularly vulnerable to forced labor in the construction industry, as were Sri Lankan and Indian women engaged in domestic work. Maldives Immigration detained undocumented workers at Hulhumale Detention Center, an immigration-processing center near Male, until deportation or repatriation. There were continued reports of bureaucratic delays in receiving passports from foreign missions for undocumented immigrants and substandard facilities at the immigration-processing center. Maldives Immigration reported it screened the workers for victims of trafficking, but there were reports some of the detained and deported undocumented workers should have been identified as trafficking victims.
Under the penal code, forced labor carries a penalty of up to eight-years’ imprisonment. Under section 29 of the Maldives Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, confiscation, alteration, or withholding of identity and travel documents is a crime, and perpetrators are subject to up to five-years’ imprisonment. In 2015 parliament approved the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons for 2015-19. The penalty for human trafficking is a maximum sentence of 10 years. As of December the MPS and Maldives Immigration reported they were investigating more than 35 labor recruiters or agencies allegedly engaged in fraudulent practices. In September, Maldives Immigration denied entry to two Bangladeshi nationals reportedly engaged in trafficking Bangladeshi migrant workers to the country. Employee associations reported concerns the alleged traffickers were deported with no further action or attempts to identify local traffickers who worked with them to traffic victims.
The LRA, under the Ministry of Economic Development, recommended to the ministry and Maldives Immigration the blacklisting of companies that violated the law, precluding the companies from bringing in new workers until violations were rectified the LRA reported, however, that the Ministry of Economic Development and Maldives Immigration did not always take their recommendations to blacklist and allowed companies to continue operations. In addition to blacklisting, the law allows a fine of not more than MVR 50,000 ($3,250) for forced labor and other violations of the Employment Act, but the LRA reported this amount was not sufficient to deter violations by large companies.
As of September, Maldives Immigration reported the number of documented foreign workers at approximately 200,000. They estimated there were an additional 63,000 undocumented foreign workers in the country, predominantly men from Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. Some of the foreign workers in the country were subject to forced labor in the construction and tourism sectors. Both the LRA and TEAM noted an increasing trend of resorts hiring third party subcontractors to work in departments such as maintenance, landscaping, and laundry services. These subcontractors reportedly hired undocumented migrant workers who received a lower salary, work longer hours, and often experience delays in payment of salaries and work without a legal employment contract. Most victims of forced labor suffered the following practices: debt bondage, holding of passports by employers, fraudulent offers of employment, not being paid the promised salary, or not being paid at all. Domestic workers, especially migrant female domestic workers, were sometimes trapped in forced servitude, in which employers used threats, intimidation, and in some cases sexual violence to prevent them from leaving.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor and sets the minimum age for employment at 16, with an exception for children who voluntarily participate in family businesses. The law prohibits employment of children under age 18 in “any work that may have a detrimental effect on health, education, safety, or conduct,” but there was no list of such activities. The law prescribes a fine of no less than MVR 1,000 ($65) and no more than MVR 5,000 ($325) for infractions.
The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services, the Ministry of Economic Development, and the Family and Child Protection Unit of the MPS are tasked with receiving, investigating, and taking action on complaints of child labor. According to the LRA, the MPS and the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services none of the complaints received related to child labor or employment of minors. Additionally, the LRA found no cases of child labor during its regular labor inspections during the year. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, because no additional resources were dedicated specifically to uncover additional child labor cases.
Government officials and civil society groups reported concerns that some Bangladesh migrant workers in the construction and service sectors were under 18, but possessed passports stating they were older. Civil society groups also reported that minors were used in the transport of drugs for criminal gangs.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, color, sex, political opinion, religion, social origin, marital status, or family obligations. The government generally enforced those laws and regulations, with some exceptions that included unequal pay for women and discrimination in working and living conditions of foreign migrant workers, especially from Bangladesh.
According to NGOs, there were no policies in place to provide equal opportunities for women’s employment, despite provisions in the constitution and the law. The law and constitution prohibit discrimination against women for employment or for equal pay or equal income, but women tended to earn less than men for the same work and also because they tended to work in lower-paying industries. The absence of child-care facilities made it difficult for women with children to remain employed after they had children.
The Employment Act establishes an Employment Tribunal to examine and protect the rights of employers and employees in legal matters and other employment problems.
Discrimination against migrant workers was pervasive (see section 7.b.).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The country does not have a national policy on minimum wage. Wages in the private sector were commonly set by contract between employers and employees and were based on rates for similar work in the public sector. According to 2016 Asian Development Bank statistics, 8.2 percent of citizens lived below the poverty level of MVR 29 ($1.90) per day.
The law establishes maximum hours of work, overtime, annual and sick leave, maternity leave, and guidelines for workplace safety. In March, President Solih announced civil servants would be allowed six months of maternity leave, instead of the previously allocated three months, and one month’s paternity leave instead of the previously allocated three days. The law provides for a 48-hour per week limit on work with a compulsory 24-hour break if employees work six days consecutively. Certain provisions in the law, such as overtime and public-holiday pay, do not apply to emergency workers, air and sea crews, executive staff of any company, or workers who are on call. Employee associations reported some government schools and hospitals placed a cap on overtime pay. The law mandates implementation of a safe workplace, procurement of secure tools and machinery, verification of equipment safety, use of protective equipment to mitigate health hazards, employee training in the use of protective gear, and appropriate medical care, but there were no national standards for safety measures, and as a result such measures were at the discretion of employers. The LRA also reported difficulties in assessing safety standards during inspections due to the lack of national standards. In January the government published safety regulations for the construction industry which requires employers to provide employees with safety equipment such as helmets, belts, and masks, but NGOs reported the government failed to monitor implementation of these standards. All employers are required to provide health insurance for foreign workers.
In 2013 parliament approved the country’s accession to eight core International Labor Organization conventions, but the government had not finalized the bills required for the conventions to be legislated into domestic law as of December.
The LRA and Employment Tribunal are charged with implementing employment law, and the LRA conducted workplace investigations and provided dispute resolution mechanisms to address complaints from workers. The most common findings related to lack of or problematic provisions included in employment contracts and job descriptions, overtime and other pay, and problems related to leave. The LRA preferred to issue notices to employers to correct problems, because cases were deemed closed once fines were paid. The LRA typically gave employers one to three months to correct problems but lacked sufficient labor inspectors and travel funding to enforce compliance.
Migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to exploitation, worked in unacceptable conditions, and were frequently forced to accept low wages to repay their debts with employment agencies, especially within the construction sector. Female migrant workers, especially in the domestic service sector were especially vulnerable to exploitation. Employers in the construction and tourism industry often housed foreign workers at their worksites. Some migrant workers were exposed to dangerous working conditions, especially in the construction industry, and worked in hazardous environments without proper ventilation. During the year there were multiple accidents at construction sites in Male, including the death of a migrant worker struck by a falling rock at a construction site in Hulhumale in February.
The Employment Act protects workers who remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.